Steinmetz on the Battered Husband Syndrome

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Intense and bitter controversy arose as soon as her fellow experts in domestic violence read Suzanne Steinmetz’s scholarly article, “The Battered Husband Syndrome.” This article was published in Victimology: An International Journal in 1978. The abstract of Steinmetz’s article declared:

Husband abuse is not uncommon, although many tend to ignore it, dismiss it or treat it with “selective inattention.” The reasons why men do not report their victimization and why they stay in an abusive situation are examined in depth. Some of the myths commonly held about men’s place in the family, their attachment to their offspring and their ability to easily move in and out of relationships are exploded.

Reviewing empirical data available at that time, Steinmetz found “husband-beating constitutes a sizable proportion of marital violence.”^ Looking across different modes of physical violence within the family, Steinmetz found “the percentage of wives having used physical violence often exceeds that of the husbands.”^

Appearing in the same journal issue as Steinmetz’s eleven-page article was four scholars’ four-page savaging of Steinmetz’s article. Such a same-issue response was unprecedented for Victimology. The response, “The Battered Data Syndrome: A Comment on Steinmetz’ Article,” included twelve detailed technical criticisms. These criticisms seem to turn mainly on interpretive misunderstandings. For example, point 7 declares:

the question of whether wives commit less or equal physical spouse abuse than their husbands (again, no data indicates wives commit more) must be regarded as unresolved at this time.^

All statistical work evolves estimates. That basic statistical understanding implies that if the hypothesis “less or equal” is “unresolved at this time,” then “more” also must be unresolved. Not surprisingly, Steinmetz shows for some data, on some measures of physical violence, wives commit more physical violence. In light of the subsequent three decades of scholarly research on family violence, the technical criticisms in the response to Steinmetz’s article are not interesting or important.

More interesting was the response’s broader indictment of Steinmetz. The response declared in conclusion:

the fact that congressional representatives and millions of newspaper readers will believe that a federally funded study showed that “more men than women are victims of domestic violence” is a serious cause for alarm. We are frankly disturbed by the quality of the scholarship represented in this {meaning Steinmetz’s} article. If the topic were of only mild interest to the public, it would only be a question of scholarly standards. If the results of the article were not being widely disseminated, we would be less concerned. But the combination of the social importance of the topic and the wide dissemination of the “findings” poses a most serious issue for our profession.^

The reference to congressional representatives and millions of newspaper readers concerns a newspaper story and an advice column. The scholarly response noted:

In a UPI story in the Chicago Daily News (Aug. 31, 1977), the headline reads, “Study Backs Up Suspicions Husband is More Battered Spouse.” Its first sentence states that “more men than women are victims of domestic violence, according to a study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health.” Later in the story, congressional representatives Steers, Boggs, and Howard were interviewed concerning pending legislation on family violence. In the Ann Landers column, perhaps the most widely read family advice column, a writer told Landers that “we have been hearing a lot about battered wives but it now appears that husbands suffer more domestic violence than their mates.” The letter continues to quote from newspaper reports of the Steinmetz study, saying that “men inflict more serious physical damage, but the so-called weaker sex goes on the offensive much more frequently.” Landers does not dispute the alleged finding, simply responding that, “I’ll bet the animal kingdom is less violent than men.” (Dec. 6, 1977)^

Broader scholarly consideration of the contents of newspapers and advice columns suggests rather different professional concerns. The version of the UPI story that ran in the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 31, 1977) began thus:

Three House members are drafting a bill to aid battered wives, but an independent study shows that more men than women are victims of domestic violence.^

Steinmetz’s study was being made news in the context of national legislation to provide aid to women who are victims of domestic violence, but not to men who are victims of domestic violence. As reported in the relatively short news article, an aide to Congressional Representative Steers had a relatively balanced view of Steinmetz’s article:

An aide to Steers said the National Institute on Mental Health funded five studies on the issue and one of them, by Dr. Suzanne Steinmetz, sociology professor at the University of Delaware, showed that men were victims more often than women were.

“The Steinmetz study showed that men actually experience more physical violence than women,” the aide said. “Men do more damage but women go on the offensive more often but don’t do as much damage.”

The news article and the congressional representatives’ views are hardly grounds for serious scholarly concern. The letter that appeared in Ann Landers’ advice column, and Ann Landers’ dismissive response, also don’t seem to be grounds for such concern. In fact, Ann Landers, unlike many domestic violence scholars, seems to have learned and changed her view on battered husbands based on the accumulating evidence before her. She and other newspaper advice columnists subsequently expressed compassionate concern about domestic violence against men.

The scholarly response to Steimetz’s article on battered husbands indicates reason for concern about the domestic violence research profession. Damaging, false claims like “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women” have been prevalent in public discourses for nearly three decades. Such damaging, false claims have reached the discursive heights of the U.S. Congress and U.S. Supreme Court opinions. Domestic violence research has done little to dispel gross factual misunderstanding about domestic violence.

Domestic violence research has not helped to provide equal support and equal justice for women and men who are victims of domestic violence. U.S. nationally representative, credible data indicates that injuries from domestic violence prompt hundreds of thousands of men per year to seek care in hospital emergency departments. Almost no domestic violence shelters have been established to serve men. Most existing domestic violence shelters are strongly oriented to serving women. Moreover, stereotypes of women as victims and men as criminals are deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence. Domestic violence research has engaged in vicious intramural fights about stark social inequities at the center of its field of inquiry.

The editor’s introduction to the special issue of Victimology containing Steinmetz’s article expressed concern exclusively for women and showed contempt for men. The introduction begins thus:

The fate of many women throughout the world still is to bear numerous children, to work hard without education or job training opportunities, and to die at an early age. Women are universally portrayed as dependable, cheerful and devoted domestics.^

That’s grotesque stereotyping of the real lives of women. In the U.S. in the late 1970s, men died on average seven years earlier than women. What do such issues have to do with a reasonable introduction to a special issue on spouse abuse and domestic violence? The second paragraph of that introduction begins thus:

That men regard women as their property, to do with as they will, is often revealed by the brutal treatment women receive at the hands of their husbands, lovers, brothers, parents, and employees.

The phrase “men regard women as their property, to do with as they will” is presented as a universal fact. The phrase “the brutal treatment women receive at the hands of their husbands, lovers, brothers, …” also hangs as a universal claim. The editor explains that the former “is often revealed by” the latter. That’s a hateful attack on men, men who are husbands, lovers, and brothers of women. That such misandry appears in the introduction to a scholarly special journal issue on domestic violence reveals deep problems in this scholarship. That Steinmetz’s article on battered husbands, but not this introduction, became highly controversial shows deep sex bias in patterns of social communication.

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